Martin Courtney is tired of being called “chill.” That’s the word that’s been pinned to his band, Real Estate, pretty much since they formed in 2009. But while that descriptor fits in some ways — there is a hazy, dreamlike quality to much of their music — it misses much of the emotional complexity — the melancholy, soul-searching side of Courtney’s lyrics — that really define their sound.
The band’s latest album, In Mind, was released last month and sees the group straining against the “chill” label more than ever. There’s the jazzy “Holding Pattern,” for example, or the looser jam of “Two Arrows,” which seems designed to echo the thundering repetition of the Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy.” And lyrically, the album sees Courtney facing down the difficulties of being a touring musician while also being a husband and father.
Real Estate will perform at Saturn on Wednesday, April 5. Recently, Courtney spoke to Weld about In Mind, his band’s personnel changes, and why he’s open to criticism of his work.
Weld: There’s often an expectation for indie rock bands to change up their sound from album to album — but In Mind definitely sounds very much like a Real Estate record.
Martin Courtney: It’s funny. Before the record came out, I kind of felt like this album was pretty different. I think it had a lot to do with the process for us, [which] was way different from the way we’ve made previous records. We were trying a lot of new techniques and styles and ideas and stuff in the studio, and for me, I still feel like it’s very new and fresh. It was exciting making it and it’s an exciting album for me to listen to.
It’s been funny seeing reviews of it and everyone saying — and they could be positive reviews, but they’re always like, “It’s a great record, but more of the same from Real Estate.” It’s surprising to me, but also, I get it. I think we were definitely trying new things, and we’d never really made an album the way we made this one, in terms of the way we rehearsed it all together, in one big chunk. So yeah, there are things to me that set it apart, but also, like you said, it’s kind of expected of bands to arbitrarily change. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that, I guess. That might be obvious at this point. I think people don’t really know what to do with us because we’re not the type of band that changes like that. We’re not Animal Collective or something, where every record is very different.
Weld: At the same time, there are a few new elements in play here — keys are more prominent than they’ve ever been, and there’s a new lead guitarist, Julian Lynch.
Courtney: I think if anything, the big changes on this record came from personnel changes. With the keys, for example, our keyboard player, Matt [Kallman] played on Atlas, but he joined the band right before we made that record, so he wasn’t a part of the whole writing process from the beginning — unlike on this record where he really was able to make his mark on the songs… So his parts are definitely more integral on this record than on the previous one or on any of those records in the past, where I was just playing these crappy keyboard parts.
And then Julian has his own style and he’s a different musician from our previous guitar player, Matt [Mondanile]. It’s definitely the kind of thing that made the record feel really different to make… In the studio we were just a little more open to weirder sounds in the mix. It definitely felt different to me in that way, for sure.
Weld: You released your first solo album, Many Moons, in 2015. Did that affect your approach to In Mind?
Courtney: That record was weird to me because I wanted to just try lots of different ideas. I was working with Jarvis Taveniere, who plays in the band Woods, and that was kind of a collaborative project between him and me. I think we were definitely, in the back of our minds, trying to do something that Real Estate wouldn’t do. To me it was a departure; that album was trying to bring in strings and do different things with the arrangements and write songs in a slightly different genre, more like trying to emulate different influences and stuff.
So for me, doing In Mind was like coming back to Real Estate and getting back to that mindset — which recently, I’ve been thinking, if I’m going to listen to the criticism that we haven’t changed enough from previous records, maybe that’s the one thing that I did that contributed to that, coming back to Real Estate and thinking, “Well, I’m back in Real Estate. Let’s get into Real Estate mode and write Real Estate songs.”
It was really fun and it felt really good to be writing in that way again, which is kind of more natural to me than trying to write songs that basically like the Kinks or something, which is what I was doing with the solo record. So yeah, I think coming back to Real Estate was mostly a comfort thing. And it was exciting to me to be working with those bandmates again. I think for all of us, we were excited to be in the same room again because we’d taken a little bit of a break.
Weld: You seem to be very cognizant of critical reception. A lot of artists swear that they don’t read reviews.
Courtney: It’s exciting to me when a record comes out, so yeah, I’ll — I don’t know. If people say they don’t read reviews, then that’s an admirable quality. I would say that would be the ideal.
But for me it’s hard to avoid it, because I’m curious to see what people think. We put a lot of work into it. I’m just curious to see. I’m so proud of the record. I just want it to feel how it’s being reacted to, for sure. It’s the same thing with Twitter or social media — I just like seeing people’s reactions. It’s kind of similar to just playing a show. I think it’s good to get feedback.
You get wrapped up in your own head making something. It’s kind of getting some outside influence. It’s similar to working with a producer or playing songs for friends or family members to get their reaction. I think that’s a helpful thing to the spirit of the band in general. We’re a very collaborative band. It’s not just one person’s ideas.
Weld: Lyrically, Real Estate’s older albums are steeped more in nostalgia, while Atlas somewhat shifted its focus to the present. Were there any specific ideas or themes you set out to write about for In Mind?
Courtney: Generally, I don’t have themes in advance that I’m trying to write about. It’s always a reflection of where I’m living or what’s going on in my life at a particular moment. Or it’s thinking about a memory of a time in my life or something like that. It’s not like I set out to write these lyrics with certain themes in mind, obviously, but certain themes emerged.
There’s a lot on there about basically what is about to happen in my life, which is like, you make a record and then you have to go on tour. This weekend, I’m going to leave and be on tour for basically the next three months, with little breaks in between. It’s about to be really intense, so I was really cognizant of that, going into making this record and writing these songs, and I think a lot of the songs are reflecting on this sort of push-and-pull and almost, like, guilt that I feel about the fact that I have to tour and leave my family for these extended amounts of time.
That’s a tough thing I have to deal with personally. It’s something that’s easy to push to the back of your mind, but once it becomes a reality… Especially right now, we’re kind of realizing what’s on our plate. We in the band have been emailing each other, texting, like, “Dude, it’s about to get really intense.” Just trying to be really good friends to each other and trying to make sure that we keep each other’s feelings in our minds, because it’s going to affect everybody’s life, what we’re about to do. We’re all in our 30s now. I’ve got a family, people have got serious girlfriends — there are just things that tie us to our home life way more than when we started this band and were like, 22 or 23 years old. It’s the same amount of work, but it’s just harder to do now. That’s what I was thinking about what I was writing these songs.
Weld: Real Estate has often been labeled a “chill” band, which is something you’ve been speaking out against recently. Why does that label bother you?
Courtney: I think that’s a surface-level description that’s leveled at us by people that may be very casual music listeners. They’ll just categorize bands, like, “Oh, Real Estate. They’re that chill band.” There’s not much you can really do about that, because that’s the way a lot of people consume music.
[But] a song like “Darling,” that’s an example of why this album is very different. “Darling” is almost a dance song. It’s got that four-on-the-floor drumbeat, almost. It’s not crazy fast, but it’s definitely not chill. I wouldn’t listen to that song and be like, “Oh, that’s so relaxing.” It’s an upbeat pop song. But we released that song, and everybody was like, “Relax and chill out to this new Real Estate single.” It’s like, “Alright, so there’s nothing we can do about that. That’s who we are in the minds of music journalists who are being lazy and music fans who might only be listening to us on the surface level.” And that’s cool, and I’m glad to just get the attention at all. I’m glad that people are even interested in hearing our single, and that’s all well and good, but I would hope that if you spent a little more time with the songs, you might discover that, lyrically and thematically, it goes a little deeper than just chilling. I’m not writing about hanging out on the beach or something.
I feel like our music is not going to immediately grab you. Hopefully it does, but if you spend some more time with it, there’s layers to it… That’s always been my favorite kind of music, too. Stuff that when I first hear it, I’m maybe like, “Yeah, that’s alright, whatever.” But one day it just clicks. You’re listening to it on an airplane or something, and all of a sudden you’re like, “This is my new favorite album.”
Real Estate will perform at Saturn on Wednesday, April 5. Mary Lattimore will open. Doors will open at 8 p.m.; the show begins at 9 p.m. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.